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California ‘Firewall’ Becomes ‘Race to Top’ Issue

By Lesli A. Maxwell — August 11, 2009 2 min read
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Since U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan singled out California as one of three states most likely to be weak contenders for some of the $4.35 billion in Race to the Top Fund grants under the federal economic-stimulus law, officials there have scrambled to argue otherwise.

The dispute centers around California’s so-called firewall between its new student-achievement data system and one for teachers that is due to roll out next year.

The 2006 California statute that created a statewide longitudinal-data system for teachers states that “data in the system shall not be used, either solely or in conjunction with data from the [student database], for purposes of pay, promotion, sanction, or personnel evaluation of an individual teacher or groups of teachers, or of any other employment decisions related to individual teachers.”

Further, the law says, “the system shall not include the names, Social Security numbers, home addresses, telephone numbers, or e-mail addresses of individual teachers.” In other words, the statewide database will have no information that would personally identify a teacher.

Such provisions, Mr. Duncan has said, are barriers to Race to the Top eligibility.

But California’s top three K-12 officials argue that the state law doesn’t prohibit principals and superintendents from using student-achievement data to appraise the effectiveness of their teacher staffs. And they point to two districts that are doing it already: Long Beach Unified and Garden Grove Unified.

“We make all of our employment and evaluative decisions at the local level,” said Jack O’Connell, California’s superintendent of public instruction, who, along with state school board President Ted Mitchell and state Secretary of Education Glen W. Thomas, sent a letter to Mr. Duncan last month to make that case. “I understand how people can read the same language and come to a different conclusion, though.”

Help in settling all of this could fall to Jerry Brown, California’s attorney general and a former two-term Democratic governor who also is likely to run for governor next year. One of the proposed rules in the Race to the Top competition is that state attorneys general must sign off on any education-related statutes that states present as evidence of eligibility for the competition.

Doing so could put Mr. Brown in a dicey political position: Will he side with the Obama administration? Or will he agree with the California Teachers Association—always an indispensable ally for Democrats running for statewide office—which doesn’t want the law to be tweaked?

The 340,000-member CTA insists there is no need to change the statute’s language because local school districts can do exactly what Mr. Duncan has called for. State-level use of teacher data, the union argues, would duplicate the job of the state’s credentialing commission and invite state-level bureaucrats to meddle in local school district business.

“I would hope that the secretary and President Obama would not shortchange the students of California because of some bureaucratic red tape and the intent of a law that they don’t understand,” said CTA spokeswoman Becky Zoglman.

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